Dead Beat Chapter 3

 

I needed some answers.

Time to hit the lab.

Me and Mouse returned to my apartment in the Blue Beetle, the beat up old Volkswagen Bug that is my faithful steed. “Blue” is kind of a metaphorical description. The car has had various doors and panels replaced with white, yellow, red, and green. My mechanic Mike had managed to pound the hood more or less back into its original condition, which I’d bent out of shape while ramming a bad guy, but I hadn’t had the money to repaint, so now the car had primer grey added to its ensemble.

Mouse had been growing too quickly to be very graceful about getting out of the car. He filled up most of the back seat, and when climbing from there to the front and then out the driver’s side door he reminded me of some footage I’ve seen of an elephant seal flopping through a New Zealand parking lot. He emerged happily enough, though, panting and waving his tail contentedly. Mouse liked going places in the car. That the place had happened to be a clandestine meeting in a freaking graveyard didn’t seem to spoil anything for him. It was all about the journey, not the destination. A very Zen soul, was Mouse.

Mister hadn’t come back yet, and neither had Thomas. I tried not to think too hard about that. Mister had been on his own when I found him, and he frequently went rambling. He could take care of himself. Thomas had managed to survive for all but the last several months of his life without me. He could take care of himself too.

I didn’t have to worry about either of them, right?

Yeah, right.

I disarmed my wards, the spells that protected my home from various supernatural intrusion, and slipped inside with Mouse. I built up the fire a bit, and the dog settled down in front of it with a pleased sigh. Then I ditched my coat, grabbed my thick old flannel robe and a Coke, and headed downstairs.

I live in a basement apartment, but a trap door underneath one of my rugs opens up on a folding wooden stair-ladder that leads down to the sub-basement and my lab. It’s cold down there, year-round, which is why I wear the heavy robe. It’s one more drop of the romance sucked out of the wizarding mystique, but I stay comfortable.

“Bob,” I said as I climbed down into the pitch-dark lab. “Warm up the memory banks. I’ve got work to do.”

The first lights in the room to flicker on were the golden-orange color and the size of candle flames. They shone out from the eye sockets of a skull, slowly growing brighter, until I could see the entire shelf the skull rested upon—a simple wooden shelf on the wall, covered in candles, romance novels, a number of small items, and the pale human skull.

“About time,” the skull mumbled. “It’s been weeks since you needed me.”

“Tis the season,” I said. “Most of the Halloween jobs start looking the same after a few years. No need to consult you when I already know the answers I need.”

“If you were so smart,” Bob muttered, “You wouldn’t need me now.”

“That’s right,” I told him. I pulled a box of kitchen matches out of my robe’s pockets and started lighting candles. I started with a bunch of them on a metal table running down the center of the small room. “You’re a spirit of knowledge, whereas I am only human.”

“Right,” said Bob, drawing out the word. “Are you feeling all right, Harry?”

I continued on, lighting candles on the white wire shelves and workbenches on the three walls in a ‘c’ shape around the long steel table. My shelves were still crowded with plastic dishes with lids, coffee cans, bags, boxes, tins, vials, flasks, and every other kind of small container you can imagine, filled with all kinds of substances as mundane as lint and as exotic as octopus ink. I had several hundred pounds worth of books and notebooks on the shelves, some arranged neatly and some stacked hastily where they’d been when last I left them. I hadn’t been down to the lab for a while, and I don’t allow the faeries access, so there was a little bit of dust over everything.

“Why do you ask?” I said.

“Well,” Bob said, his tone careful, “you’re complimenting me, which is never goodl. Plus lighting all of your candles with matches.”

“So?” I said.

“So you can light all the candles with that stupid little spell you made up,” Bob said. “And you keep dropping the box because your of your burned hand. So it’s taken you seven matches now to keep lighting those candles.”

I fumbled and dropped the matchbox again from my stiff, gloved fingers.

“Eight,” he said.

I suppressed a growl, struck a fresh match, and did it too forcefully, snapping it.

“Nine,” Bob said.

“Shut up,” I told him.

“You got it, boss. I’m the best at shutting up.” I lit the last few candles, and Bob said, “So did you come down here to get my help when start working on your new blasting rod?”

“No,” I said. “Bob, I’ve only got the one hand. I can’t carve it with one hand.”

“You could use a vice-grip,” the skull suggested.

“I’m not ready,” I said. My maimed fingers burned and throbbed. “I’m just . . . not.”

“You’d better get ready,” Bob said. “It’s only a matter of time before some nasty shows up and—”

I shot the skull a hard look.

“All right, all right,” Bob said. If he had hands, the skull would have raised them in a gesture of surrender. “So you’re telling me you still won’t use any fire magic.”

“Stars and stones,” I sighed. “So I’m using matches instead of my candle spell and I’m too busy to get the new blasting rod done. It’s not a big deal. There’s just not much call for blowing anything up or burning it to cinders on my average day.”

“Harry?” Bob asked. “Are your feet wet? And can you see the pyramids?”

I blinked. “What?”

“Earth to Dresden,” Bob said. “You are standing knee-deep in De Nile.”

I threw the matchbook at the skull. It bounced off half-heartedly, and the few matches left in tumbled out at random. “Keep your inner psychoanalyst to your damned self,” I growled. “We’ve got work to do.”

“Yeah,” Bob said. “You’re right, Harry. What do I know about anything?”

I glowered at Bob, and pulled up my stool to the work table. I got out a notebook and a pencil. “The question of the hour is what do you know about something called the Word of Kemmler?”

Bob made a sucking sound through his teeth, which is fairly impressive given that he’s got no saliva to work with. Or maybe I’m giving him too much credit. I mean, he can make a ‘b’ sound with no lips, too. “Can you give me a reference point or anything?”

“Not for certain,” I said. “But I have a gut instinct that says it has something to do with necromancy.”

Bob made a whistling sound. “I hope not.”

“Why?” I asked.

“Because that Kemmler was a certifiable nightmare,” Bob said. “I mean, wow. He was sick, Harry. Evil.”

That got my attention. Bob the skull was an air spirit, a being that existed in a world of knowledge without morality. He was fairly fuzzy on the whole good-evil conflict, and as a result he had only vague ideas of where lines got drawn. If Bob thought someone was evil, well. Kemmler must have really pushed the envelope.

“What’d he do?” I asked. “What made him so evil?”

“He was best known for World War One,” Bob said.

“The whole thing?” I demanded.

“Mostly, yeah,” Bob said. “There were about a hundred and fifty years of engineering built into it, and he had his fingers into all kinds of pies. He vanished at the end of hostilities and didn’t show up again until he started animating mass graves during World War Two. Went on rampages out in eastern Europe, where things were pretty much a nightmare even without his help. Nobody is sure how many people he killed.”

“Stars and stones,” I said. “Why would he do something like that?”

“A wild guess? He was freaky insane. Plus evil.”

“You say was,” I said. “Past tense?”

“Very,” Bob said. “After what the guy did, the White Council hunted him down and wiped his dusty ass out in 1961.”

“You mean the Wardens?”

“I mean the White Council,” Bob said. “The Merlin, the whole Senior Council, the brute squad out of Archangel, the Wardens, and every wizard and ally the wizards could get their hands on.”

I blinked. “For one man?”

“See above, regarding nightmare,” Bob said. “Kemmler was a necromancer, Harry. Power over the dead. He had truck with demons, too, was buddies with most of the vampire Courts, every nasty in Europe and some of the uglier faeries, too. Plus he had his own little cadre of baby Kemmlers to help him out. Apprentices. And thugs of every description.”

“Damn,” I said.

“Doubtless he was,” Bob said. “They killed him pretty good. A bunch of times. He’d shown up again after the Wardens had killed him early in the nineteenth century, so they were real careful the second time. And good riddance to the psychotic bastard.”

I blinked. “You knewhim?”

“Didn’t I ever tell you?” Bob asked. “He was my owner for about forty years.”

I stared. “You worked with this monster?”

“I do what I do,” Bob said proudly.

“How did Justin get you, then?”

“Justin DuMorne was a Warden, Harry, back at Kemmler’s last stand. He pulled me out of the smoldering ruins of Kemmler’s lab. Sort of like when you pulled me out of the smoldering ruins of Justin’s lab when you killed him. Circle of life, like that Elton John song.”

I felt more than a little tiny bit cold. I chewed on my lip and laid my pencil down. I had the feeling the rest of this conversation was not going to be something I wanted to create a written record of. “So what is the Word of Kemmler, Bob?”

“Not a clue,” Bob said.

I glowered. “What do you mean, not a clue? I thought you were his skull Friday.”

“Well, yeah,” Bob said. His eyelights flickered suddenly, a nervous little dance. “I don’t remember very much of it.”

I snorted out a laugh. “Bob. You never forget anything.”

“No,” Bob said. His voice shrank into something very small. “Unless I want to, Harry.”

I frowned and took a deep breath. “You’re saying that you chose to forget things about Kemmler.”

“Or was compelled to,” Bob said. “Um. Harry, can I come out? Just inside the lab? You know, while we talk.”

I blinked a couple of times. Bob was full of mischief on the best of days. I didn’t let him out except on specific intelligence-gathering missions any more. And while he often pestered me to let him out on one of his perverted mini-rampages, he had never asked permission to leave his skull for the duration of a chat. “Sure,” I told him. “Stay inside the lab and be back in the skull at the end of this conversation.”

“Right,” Bob said. A small cloud of glowing motes of light the size of campfire sparks came sailing out of the skull’s eyes and darted to the far corner of the lab. “So anyway, when are we going to work on the new blasting rod?”

“Bob,” I said. “We’re talking about the Word of Kemmler.”

The lights shot restlessly over to the other side of the lab, swirling through the steps on my stairladder in a glowing helix. “You’re talking about the Word of Kemmler,” Bob said. The glowing cloud stretched, motes now spiraling up and down the stairs simultaneously. “I’m working on my Vegas act. Lookit, I’m DNA.”

“Would you stop goofing around. Can you remember anything at all about Kemmler?”

Bob’s voice quavered, the motes becoming a vague cloud again. “I can.”

“Then tell me what you know.”

“Is that a command?”

I blinked. “Do I have to make it one?”

“You don’t want to command me to remember, Harry.”

“Why not?” I demanded.

The cloud of lights drifted in vague loops around the lab. “Because knowledge is what I am. Losing my knowledge of what I knew of Kemmler took away a . . . a big piece of my existence. Like if someone had cut off your arm. What’s left of what I know of Kemmler is close to the missing pieces.”

I thought I started to understand him. “It hurts.”

The lights swirled uncertainly. “It also hurts. It’s more than that.”

“If it hurts,” I said, “I’ll stop, and you can forget it again when we’re done talking.”

“But—” Bob said.

“It’s a command, Bob. Tell me.”

Bob shuddered.

It was a bizarre sight. The cloud of lights shivered for a second, as if in a trembling breath of wind, and then abruptly just shifted, flickering to one side as quickly as if I had been looking at it with one eye closed and suddenly switched to the other.

“Kemmler,” Bob said. “Right.” The lights came to rest on the other end of the table in the shape of a perfect sphere. “What do you want to know, wizard?”

I watched the lights warily, but nothing seemed all that wrong. Other than that Bob was suddenly calm. And geometric. “Tell me what the Word of Kemmler is.”

The lights pulsed scarlet. “Knowledge. Truth. Power.”

“Uh,” I said. “A little more specific?”

“The master wrote down his teachings, wizard, so that those who came after him could learn from him. Could learn about the true power of magic.”

“You mean,” I said, “so that they could learn about necromancy.”

Bob’s voice took on the edge of a sneer. “What you call magic is nothing but a mound of parlor tricks, beside the power to master life and death itself.”

“That’s an opinion, I guess,” I said.

“More than that,” Bob said. “It is a Truth. A Truth that reveals itself to those who seek it out.”

“What do you mean?” I said, slowly.

There was a flash, and a pair of white eyes formed in the glittering cloud of red points of light. They weren’t pleasant. “Shall I show you the start of the path?” Bob’s voice said. “Death, Dresden, is a part of you. It is woven into the fabric of your being. You are a collection of pieces, each of them dying and in turn being reborn and remade.”

The white lights were cold. Not mountain-spring cold, either. Graveyard mist cold. But I’d never seen anything quite like them before. And there was no sense interrupting Bob when he was finally spilling some information.

Besides. Fascinating light.

“Dead flesh adorns you even now. Nails. Hair. You tend them and caress them like any other mortal. Your women decorate them. Entice with them. Death is not a thing to be feared, boy. She is a lover who waits to take you into her arms. You can feel her if you know what her touch is like. Cold, slow, sweet.”

He was right. A cold, tingling non-feeling was glittering over my fingernails and my scalp. For a second, I thought that it hurt, but then I realized that it was only a shivering sensation where that cold energy brushed close to the blood pulsing beneath my skin. It was where they met that it felt uncomfortable. Without the blood, the cold would be a pure, endless sweetness.

“Take a little of death inside, boy. And it will lead you to more. Open your mouth.”

I did. I was staring at the light in any case, and it was amazing enough to merit a bit of gaping. I barely noticed a frozen mote of dark blue light, like the corpse of a tiny star, that appeared from one of the spirit’s white eyes and began drifting toward my mouth. The cold sensation grew, and it hit my tongue like a thermonuclear peppermint, freezing hot, searingly bitter and sweet and—

—and wrong. I spat it out, recoiling, throwing my arms up in front of my face. I fell to the floor, numbness spreading.

“Too late!” crowed the spirit. It shot into the air, swirling around over me, gloating. “Whatever you have done to my thoughts, the master will not be pleased that you have meddled with his servant.”

The cold started spreading, and it wasn’t purely physical. There was a empty, heartless void to it, a starless, frozen quality that raked at me—not just my body, but me—with a mindless hunger. And I could feel it, sending tendrils out through me, slowing my heartbeat, making it impossible to breathe.

“Do you know how long I’ve been waiting for that?” the spirit purred, drifting back and forth over me. “Sitting there locked behind my own thoughts? Waiting for the chance to fight free? Finally, you thick witted ogre, I get to leave your stupidity behind.”

“Bob,” I choked out. “This conversation is over.”

The spirit’s scarlet lights flared to sudden, incandescent rage and it screamed, a wailing sound that rattled my shelves and felt like it was splitting my head. Then the cloud was ripped backwards across the room, sucked into the eye-holes of the skull as though down a hellish drain.

Once of the last of the motes went flickering back into the skull, the horrible cold faltered a little, and I curled up, focusing my will and trying to push it away. It took me a while, and that hideous void-presence lingered against my fingernails, even after I could feel my fingers again, but after a little while I was able to sit up again.

After that, I just curled up my knees against my chest, shocked and scared half out of my mind. I had always known that Bob was an incredibly valuable asset, and that no spirit with as much knowledge as he had could be weak. But I had not been at all prepared for the sheer power he had wielded, or for the malice with which he did it. Bob wasn’t supposed to be a sleeping nightmare waiting to wake up. Bob was supposed to be my wisecracking porta-geek.

Good lord, I couldn’t remember the last time I’d confronted a demon with that much raw psychic power. If I’d been a second slower, or stars and stones, if I hadn’t remembered the condition that would banish Bob back to the skull and once again remove the dark memories, I’d be dead now. Or maybe dead and then some.

And it would have been my own stupid fault, too.

“Harry?” Bob said.

I flinched and let out a small squeaking sound. Then I got hold of myself and blinked up at the skull. It rested on its shelf, and its orange-gold eye-lights were back to their usual color. “Oh. Hey.”

Bob’s voice was very quiet. “Your lips are blue.”

“Yeah.”

“What happened?” Bob asked.

“It got kind of cold in here.”

“Me.”

“Yeah.”

“I’m sorry, Harry,” Bob said. “I tried to tell you.”

“I know,” I said. “I had no idea.”

“Kemmler was bad, Harry,” Bob said. “He . . . he took what I was. And he twisted it. I destroyed most of my memories of my time with him, and I locked away everything I couldn’t. Because I didn’t want to be like that.”

“You won’t,” I told him quietly. “Now hear this, Bob. I command you never to recover those memories again. Never to let them out again. Never to obey any command to unleash them again. From here on out they sleep with the fishes. Understand me?”

“If I do,” Bob said, carefully. “I won’t be able to do much to help you, Harry. You’ll be on your own.”

“Let me worry about that,” I said. “It’s a command, Bob.”

The skull let out a slow sigh of relief. “Thank you, Harry.”

“Don’t mention it,” I said. “Literally.”

“Right,” he said.

“Okay. Let’s see,” I said. “Can you still remember general information about Kemmler?”

“Nothing you couldn’t find in other places. But general knowledge I learned when Justin was with the Wardens, yes.”

“All right, then. You—that is, that other you—said that Kemmler had written down his teachings when I asked him what the Word of Kemmler was. So I figure it’s a book.”

“Maybe,” Bob said, carefully. “Council records stated that Kemmler had written three books; the Blood of Kemmler, the Mind of Kemmler, and the Heart of Kemmler.”

“He published them?”

“Self-published,” Bob said. “He started spreading them around Europe.”

“Resulting in what?”

“Way too many penny-ante sorcerers getting their hands on some real necromancy.”

I nodded. “What happened?”

“The Wardens put on their own epic production of Fahrenheit 451,” Bob said. “They spent about twenty years finding and destroying copies. They think they accounted for all of them.”

I whistled. “So if the Word of Kemmler is a fourth manuscript?”

“That could be bad,” Bob said.

“Why?”

“Because some of Kemmler’s disciples escaped the White Council’s dragnet,” Bob said. “They’re still running around. If they get a new round of necro-at-home lessons to expand their talents, they could use it to do fairly horrible things.”

“They’re wizards?”

“Black wizards, yes,” Bob said.

“How many?”

“Four or five at the most, but the Wardens’ information was very sketchy.”

“Doesn’t sound like anything the Wardens can’t handle,” I said.

“Unless what’s in the fourth book contains the rest of what Kemmler had to teach them,” Bob said. “In which case, we might end up with four or five Kemmlers running around.”

“Holy crap,” I said. I plunked my tired ass down on my stool and rubbed at my head. “And it’s no coincidence that tomorrow night is Halloween.”

“The season when the barriers between the mortal realm and the spirit world will be weakest,” Bob said.

“Like when that asshole the Nightmare was hunting down my friends,” I said. I peered at Bob. “But for him to do that, he had to weaken the barriers even more. He and Bianca had tormented all those ghosts to start making the barriers more unstable. Would it have to be ghosts to stir up the kind of turbulence you’d need for big magic?”

“No,” Bob said. “But that’s one way. Otherwise, you’d have to use some rituals or sacrifices of one kind or another.”

“You mean deaths,” I said.

“Exactly.”

I frowned, nodding. “They’d have to invest some energy early to get things moving for a big necromantic working. Like bouncing on a diving board a couple of times before you jump.” “An accurate, if crude aphorism,” Bob said. “You’d have to do a little pre-work if you wanted to start working Kemmler-level necromancy, even on Halloween.” He sighed. “Though that doesn’t really help you much.”

I got up and headed for the stepladder. “It helps more than you know, man. I’m getting you new romances.”

The skull’s eye-lights brightened. “You are? I mean, of course you are. But why?”

“Because if someone’s setting up for big bad juju, they’ll have left bodies. If they’ve done that, then I have a place to start tracking them and finding out what’s going on.”

“Harry?” Bob called up as I left the lab. “Where are you going?”

I stuck my head back down the trap door and said, “The morgue.”

 Posted by at 8:08 pm